Nominees: Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, The Hurt Locker, Up, Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire, A Serious Man, Inglourious Basterds, Up in the Air
Ten movies were nominated this year, but the biggest race has narrowed to two – and it's a down-to-the-wire thriller. In one corner, there's Avatar, which blew away box office records and renewed audiences' excitement about going to the movies. Its wondrous special effects made us all feel like kids again, from the blockbuster battles to the smallest touches (loved the seeds that floated like tiny jellyfish). Meanwhile, the indie Iraq War tale The Hurt Locker is every bit as thrilling as its behemoth rival. The drama about a bomb-disposal squad delivers nail-biting tension, magnetic performances, and a provocative portrait of men under pressure that sticks with you like desert grit. Hurt Locker deservedly snapped up many of the pre-Oscar awards, so the odds are in its favor. For the biggest prize of all, though, with millions of fans watching, it's hard not to pull for the big, bold Avatar, for the way it reinvented how we see movies.
SHOULD WIN: Avatar
WILL WIN: The Hurt Locker
Nominees: Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side), Helen Mirren (The Last Station), Carey Mulligan (An Education) Gabourey Sidibe (Precious), Meryl Streep (Julie & Julia)
It's an A-list showdown: Sandra Bullock, who nabbed her first-ever nomination, vs. Meryl Streep, the most-nominated actress in Oscar history. Both turned in wonderfully entertaining performances as formidable real-life women in otherwise so-so movies. As Leigh Anne Tuohy, a wealthy Southern mom who takes in a homeless teen, Bullock provided the tart wit needed to balance a sappy story. But Streep brought such joy to her performance as Julia Child – along with layers that brought it so much further than impersonation – that it's hard to imagine any other actress pulling off the role. The Academy will probably give the edge to Bullock as a reward for her stellar career (and stratospheric year, with The Proposal also being a box-office smash).
SHOULD WIN: Streep
WILL WIN: Bullock
Nominees: Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart), George Clooney (Up in the Air), Colin Firth (A Single Man) Morgan Freeman (Invictus), Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker)
Let's hear it for the guys this year: Every one of these is a virtuoso performance. But Bridges got the Oscar showcase of a lifetime with Crazy Heart, the story of a down-and-out country singer who finds a reason to be a better man. There's not a false note – and that's not even counting the man's singing. Voters think it's about time the much-admired Bridges had an Oscar. They're right.
SHOULD WIN: Bridges
WILL WIN: Bridges
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Nominees: Penélope Cruz (Nine), Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Crazy Heart) Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air), Mo'nique (Precious)
How can a mother inflict such abuse – physical, sexual, emotional – on her own child? Precious could have seemed as preposterous as a horror film, but Mo'Nique, with her dead eyes and simmering anger, makes this everyday monster terrifyingly, viscerally real. When, late in the movie, she has the nerve to ask for sympathy from her finally-free daughter, it's an unforgettably jaw-dropping moment. She's a lock for the statuette.
SHOULD WIN: Mo'Nique
WILL WIN: Mo'Nique
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Nominees: Matt Damon (Invictus), Woody Harrelson (The Messenger), Christopher Plummer (The Last Station) Stanley Tucci (The Lovely Bones), Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds)
As an outwardly charming, unstintingly vicious Nazi officer, Waltz held the screen like no one else. The Austrian actor locked up his Oscar the instant viewers saw the movie's long, almost unbearably tense first scene – with Waltz interrogating a French farmer about the whereabouts of a Jewish family. The four languages in which he exudes creepy menace are just extra credit.
SHOULD WIN: Waltz
WILL WIN: Waltz
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Nominees: Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Up, The Princess and the Frog, The Secret of Kells
Mr. Fox truly was fantastic, with its old-school stop-motion animation, visual wit and George Clooney's whiskey voice. Princess was the best traditionally animated Disney film in years, with a catchy New Orleans-flavored soundtrack. But how can you top the magic of Up? Pixar elevates computer animation to (very entertaining) art yet again, with its nearly-wordless opening love story, gorgeously unfurling balloons, and, of course, the comic relief of Dug the talking dog: "I have just met you, and I love you!"
SHOULD WIN: Up
WILL WIN: Up
Nominees: James Cameron (Avatar), Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds), Lee Daniels (Precious), Jason Reitman (Up in the Air)
For fans of Oscar-night drama, it could be the most fascinating race of all: Cameron vs. his ex-wife Bigelow. Sure, it makes sense to reward Cameron for the feat of making his Avatar dream a reality. But many in Hollywood are rooting for his long-underrated ex, who'd be the first female director ever to win – and I'm joining them. Hurt Locker is just as much a director's triumph, the product of an expert hand with casting, action and taut suspense.
SHOULD WIN: Bigelow
WILL WIN: Bigelow
The 82nd Annual Academy Awards will be presented on Sunday, March 7, and televised live on ABC beginning at 5 p.m. PT/ 8 p.m. ET.